Lately I’ve been feeling like a hypocrite. For all of my writing about the importance of talking to others about depression and anxiety, I’m struggling to be a compassionate listener. Someone close to me has been living with significant anxiety and depression for more than two years. I started out in mostly the right place. I was listening, offering compassion and emotional support. Together, we sought help from a primary care provider and got connected with a mental health professional. I researched and read articles to help me understand what my loved one was experiencing and I learned that I was probably trying too hard to help “fix” the situation.
My own stress and anxiety about the situation started to escalate to the point where I felt like I needed to talk to a professional therapist myself. I was feeling helpless, concerned and frustrated, and I’ll admit, angry. About a year ago, I found a wonderful therapist who helped me take a step back and stop trying to rescue this person who wasn’t ready to be rescued. She offered strategies to help guide my conversations and create boundaries to keep my own anxiety in check.
This guidance helped me for a while, but recently, I feel like I’ve hit a wall. After two years of trying to do and say the right things, my patience and compassion are running thin. I’m actually feeling more resentful than anything else. That feels really hard to say out loud, but I felt the need to come clean given my role as an advocate for mental health. Truth is, sometimes “showing up” for someone else feels impossible if we’re not putting on our own oxygen masks first. When I get that daily call from this person who needs my support, but is not ready to move forward, it’s a trigger for me and harmful to my mental health.
So I was talking with my good friend Andie, who is a licensed therapist in Central Oregon. As always, she had some interesting insights that I wanted to share with anyone who might be navigating the support role for someone struggling with depression and anxiety.
It’s actually a thing! I’ve heard about compassion fatigue as it relates to those brave souls who provide mental health services for a living. They are the people who sit across from us day after day, listening deeply to our stories about trauma, loss, abandonment, anxiety, fear, depression and a host of other life experiences. I can’t imagine the weight of their work. I didn’t think I deserved to say that I could possibly be experiencing compassion fatigue. What I didn’t factor in was everything else that’s going on in my world. In caring for my aging father, running a business, balancing a heavy workload and striving to maintain personal relationships and activities, I’m simply feeling overwhelmed. All of this during a pandemic and a very polarizing political climate. Those daily calls from the person who needs me are feeling like the straw that’s breaking me. So I’m recognizing that I might need to take a step back to refresh my compassion supply.
Setting clear boundaries is a kind and important thing to do for ourselves and others we care about. It doesn’t mean we are abandoning people when we set limits on our relationships. We can still be supportive, but it’s okay to do so on our own terms and without carrying the full weight of someone else’s anxiety and depression on a daily basis. We can schedule times to connect that are manageable for us. We can ask that non-emergency calls take place outside of the work day. We can make sure the person we’re supporting has access to crisis resources and professional mental health support and remind them regularly to access those supports and resources (vs. trying to play those roles ourselves).
Sometimes, taking a step back from someone who is depending on you for comfort and reassurance can empower them to take a more proactive role in their own wellness. It can be easy to fall into unhealthy rolls and patterns. I tend to want to be a “fixer” which sometimes enables others to allow me to do most of the work. If I start letting go of my need to problem solve and control situations, maybe the people around me will find more opportunities to step in and move forward on their own.
Most of the articles I’ve read have come from the perspective of the person needing support. I haven’t found much to help the person providing support. If you have or come across anything that really speaks to the challenges of taking care of ourselves while taking care of others, please share it with us at Mind Your Mind Central Oregon.
Here is an article you might find interesting:
5 Ways to Deal with Compassion Fatigue from Caring Bridge
I also found the tip below helpful. It’s from an article titled Seven Ways to Help Someone with Anxiety from Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.
Take care of yourself, too
Recognize that your goal is to help, not to cure the person or relieve them from their anxiety. Taking too much responsibility is actually a symptom of anxiety, so make sure you’re not falling into that trap yourself.
Keep in mind that your support doesn’t need to be directly focused on anxiety. For example, exercise is extremely helpful for anxiety; so perhaps you could simply offer to go for a walk or attend a yoga class together. It’s also fine to put some limits on your support. A 20-minute de-stressing conversation while taking a walk is far more likely to be useful (and less exhausting) than a two-hour marathon discussion.
Helping someone with anxiety isn’t always easy and you may feel like you’re getting it wrong. But, if you remind yourself that you and your loved one are both doing your best, it can help you keep things in perspective. It’s important to remain compassionate and, as the saying goes, to put on your own oxygen mask first. That way, you’ll have a clearer head for figuring out what’s going on with your anxious loved one and how you can truly be of help.
Still, the article is mostly about helping someone else vs. ourselves. I think there is more conversation needed around self-care. How can we be compassionate and caring towards others when we’re feeling depleted and anxious ourselves? How can we set aside our guilt and reframe ideas around selfishness when it comes to self-care? We’d love to hear your thoughts.
Thanks for reading and remember to take good care of yourselves!
Linda Quon is Vice President and Director of Communication at Quon Design and Communication. Linda is working to promote everyday mental health awareness in partnership with Deschutes County Health Services and Central Oregon Health Council — which includes providers and health advocates from Crook, Jefferson, and Deschutes Counties. Linda was born and raised in Southern California and moved to Central Oregon with her husband and two children in 2005. Her mother lived with Schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder and her oldest brother also experienced bi-polar disorder. With support from family, friends, therapists and primary care providers, Linda has been navigating the world of mental illness most of her life — including her own struggles with mild anxiety and depression. Linda is proud to work as an advocate for mental health and a blogger for Mind Your Mind Central Oregon.
Compassion photo by Dave Lowe on Unsplash